Weekly Feature

2018-07-12 / Sports

FLOP Girls hockey team repeats as Team of the Year after state title run

Sports Reporter

Coming into the 2017-18 season, the Frontier/Lake Shore/Orchard Park girls hockey team knew it was good enough to win a state title.

The girls were fresh off a season where they won a Section VI and girls hockey Federation title along with a New York State runner-up finish, and were bringing back many of the previous year’s top players. The team did exactly what it set out to do: winning a trifecta of championships and making history in the process. For that, they are the 2017-18 Orchard Park Bee Team of the Year for the second-consecutive season.

“We knew we were going to return a veteran group,” FLOP assistant coach Lucian Forcucci said. “We had a number of seniors that had been with us since middle school. So we knew that we would have a deep lineup and that we would be able to compete not only for our league championship, but at the state level as well.”

FLOP’s Jess Peters takes a shot on net during the team’s Federation Championship win over Clarence/Amherst/Sweet Home. She was among the players that led the team to the best season in program history. 
Photo by Jake French FLOP’s Jess Peters takes a shot on net during the team’s Federation Championship win over Clarence/Amherst/Sweet Home. She was among the players that led the team to the best season in program history. Photo by Jake French The team entered the season as a favorite to win the league again in coach Bob Klimowicz’s second season. They were solid all the way through, finishing the regular season in first place with a 12-3-3 record. They defeated Lancaster/Iroquois/Depew 5-1 in the sectional semifinal game and then beat Williamsville 3-1 in the final.

“In the section championship against Williamsville, they’re built very similar to us where they have some depth,” Forcucci said. “They play a smart system and they just keep coming at you. Coach (Rick) Hopkins really did a good job with them. They played us hard and I think as the game wore on, our depth was able to wear them down and we were able to separate from them. But even when we got to the state level, we thought Williamsville was the best team that we saw through our state run.”

FLOP moved onto the state semifinals, where they played reigning champion Skaneateles. They were solidly in control this time around, jumping out to an early lead before cruising to a 6-3 lead. They sealed the deal the next day with a 5-1 blowout win over Salmon River. It was the first state title for a Section VI girls hockey team and just the second state title for Orchard Park in any girls sport. The team won the section in the inaugural girls hockey of 2011, but there was no state playoff set up at that point.

“I think it was really important for the girls. I think being able to make it there last year was big,” Forcucci said. “I think us making it to the state tournament was good for us. It was a good, experienced game for them. They recognized what it would take to win. We also saw some of those same teams in Skaneateles that we saw last year, so I think that experience was huge for us. We knew going into the season that we would have a very talented team with depth, so we knew we had a chance to go far. When we did get that opportunity to get back, we just preached ‘don’t let this opportunity slip by.’ I think the team as a whole accepted the challenge and really responded to the coaching.

Generally, the state championship is the end of a given sports season. But not for girls hockey. They returned to the area to play in the Federation playoffs. They defeated Williamsville 4-3 in the semifinal round and Clarence/Amherst/Sweet Home in the final.

“They have some girls who are really talented, so our game plan was to limit their touches and time and space on the ice,” Forcucci said. “I think as the game went on and we were able to wear down their top few players, I think our depth and experience was able to take over, and we were just able to pull away.”

The team was led by a strong group of veterans, none more impactful than sophomore defenseman Brooke Becker. The All-Bee Player of the Year scored 19 goals, put up 28 points and shut down opposing forwards. She’s already earned a Division I scholarship to Providence and has tried out for the U-18 Women’s National Team. Beyond her talent, she brought strong leadership at the table.

“Brooke is a key piece of the puzzle; you can’t replace someone like her,” Forcucci said. “She’s a phenomenal talent. There are certain things you see just by watching the game. Her strength and her speed and her skating, her hockey sense whether or not she has the puck. She has the ability to produce offensively as a defenseman. She controls the whole play when she’s on the ice. What you don’t see from Brooke just from watching the game is her leadership. She’s a vocal leader on our team. She’s the one on the bus and in the locker room, doing things away from the rink to keep the team together. She’s just a phenomenal leader for us. What she brings to our team is the key piece. We couldn’t be prouder of the leadership she’s brought to the ice and the ability, too.”

Two very important factors in leading the program to back-to-back championship seasons has been the addition of Lake Shore to the Orchard Park/Frontier team. The merger brought in Emily and Mary Kromer, who were both among the best offensive players in the league the past two years.

“Two years ago, we had a very hard-working team,” Forcucci said. “We had some young talent. We just needed a little bit more offensive production. When we added Lake Shore two years ago, Emily and Mary Kromer were instant offense for us. They both were very talented players, and they were able to step right in and produce offensively for us.”

Some other key veterans included defensemen Gabby DeMeo and Sirena Fitzery, forward Jess Peters, and goalies Tori Cottrell and Maggie Spyche.

“Gabby DeMeo and Sirena Fitzery were both senior defensemen, who along with Brooke, played about every other shift through the playoffs and the state run for us. I think they were both huge pieces of the puzzle as well,” Forcucci said. “We had two goaltenders that could have been starters on any team in the league. We could go to either one on any given night. I think Coach Klimowicz has done a nice job the last two years of letting one kind of have the run through the state playoffs and one have the run through our league playoffs. They’ve complemented and challenged each other very well. Also, Jessica Peters is another forward up front who really had some timely big goals for us and some production. She’ll be up for her senior year next and we’re looking forward to her production. We’re looking forward to working with her.”

Additionally, there were some other players who stepped up to fill the holes left by the few girls who had graduated the prior offseason. Two such girls were Taylor Gehen and Haylee Tatar. Both joined the program young, but left for one year as they focused on lacrosse in 2016-17 (Gehen has a Division I scholarship and Tatar is going to Division II). Both returned for their senior season and were key pieces for the team’s championship run.

“We got them to come back out for their senior year because we knew they would add some depth to our lineup,” Forcucci said. “They both play a physical, hard-working style so that helps solidify us as well. Another girl that has given us everything has been Abby Lillis. She’s kind of an unsung hero at times. She doesn’t always show up on the scoresheet as much as some girls. But every shift, she’s out there motoring, giving everything she has. She kills penalties for us. She often is a girl that will match up against other team’s top players. She’s a great skater. She’s just a phenomenal athlete. She plays varsity soccer, varsity track and varsity hockey. She’s not someone you always hear of or see, but definitely made a difference for us winning states.”

But top-line talent is not what set the team apart. Nearly every squad had an impressive collection of girls up front. But what sets this group apart is depth. FLOP could roll three lines and had three rock-solid defensive pairings. This is what allowed them to go farther than any team in Section VI girls hockey history.

“I think depth was huge,” Forcucci said. “With girls high school public hockey, most teams will have one solid line. The good teams will have two. I think for us the difference in the playoffs for our league and at the state level was not only the offensive threats on the first and second line, but our third line being able to go out there and produce offensively and be able to shut teams down defensively and being able to skate with anyone. I think just being able to have that depth offensively from all three lines was huge. We had a few girls that were seniors that had been with us for a number of years that we had been able to always put really strong defensemen on the ice. Overall, I would say our depth was our strength.”

email: tnigrelli @beenews.com

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